SONGS of My People" is a complete cultural package. It includes a photo exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery, a book by Little Brown, a movie by HBO, and corporate sponsorship by Time Warner.
It is what they call in Hollywood "high concept." The idea is a good one, and the pictures capture a cross section of African-American life by 50 black men and women photojournalists. They were dispatched in June 1990 from the Corcoran to visit communities across the country.
What does this show bring to viewers? One of the photographers, Jason Miccolo Johnson of Washington, says "I think it brings home a sense of reality and balance that's exemplified in all of American life. It's a universal appeal. You can change our faces, but the subject matter will still be important to any ethnic or gender group." Mr. Johnson has seven pictures in the show, but his favorites are of the checker players grouped on one wall.
"Well, I was trying to capture that ... the men were very accomplished men, thinking men, dignified men. You notice the majority of the men wear their hats, and that's indicative of the time period ... it crosses a time span. Fellows in [their] 40s, others in [their] 70s and 80s, they're retired veterans, and they are people who are very articulate, very sharp.
"[I tried to capture] the whole mood of camaraderie and organization that is involved with the playing of checkers ... very complicated, detailed games...."
There are 150 black-and-white photographs in this exhibition. The project was conceived by D. Michael Cheers, Eric Easter, and Dudley M. Brooks of New African Visions. It has burgeoned into a three-year, 23-city traveling exhibition. The chosen group of photographers includes four Pulitzer Prize winners, two Neiman Fellows, a World Press Award winner, the son of civil rights leader Medgar Evers (James V. Evers), the grandson of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad (Ozier Muhammad), as well as dozens of
shooters who are working press.
The title "Songs of My People" was taken from an essay by singer Paul Robeson. There are some wonderful pictures included in the show: Ron Ceasar's shot of little Aziza Ali leaving a Muslim prayer service with her black Cabbage Patch doll cradled in her arms; Jeffery Allan Salter's shot of a two little boys holding hands on swings on Daufuskie Island, S.C., and D Stevens's shot of George Thomas, who lives in a gang war zone in Los Angeles and says, "I would love to be living when the book comes out...."
Interestingly enough, there's a minority within the minority represented in the book. Very few of the photographers are African-American women. Renee Hannens, who is a photojournalist with the Atlanta Constitution, says there are few black women in the field.
"I think the next generation is going to have more. From my experience growing up, photography or news photography is basically a man's job. As far as being on the football field or covering assignments, I'm usually the only woman or the only black or the only black woman," Ms. Hannens says.
Hannens has been a photojournalist for about l2 years. Her father, a Methodist minister who was also a portrait photographer at home, encouraged and taught her. Her moving photos of "Hope" portray Terrance Singh, a young man who lost both legs, who has learned to swim.
David Levy, director of the Corcoran, says "Songs of My People" reminds him of one of the groundbreaking exhibitions of photography in the 1950s, called "The Family of Man."
"For my generation it was the first and most important exhibition of photography that put photography on the map," Mr. Levy says. "And it put mankind on the map because it had a vitality and an energy both about great art and about people. I think 'Songs of My People' is 'The Family of Man' of the '90s, and certainly ... for the African-American community...."
* At the Corcoran until May 3. It makes stops in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, Detroit, Philadelphia, Little Rock, Ark., Jackson, Miss., Raleigh, N.C., and Houston. Over the same period, a European tour of seven countries is scheduled, beginning in London.